Paul Willis of Niman Ranch Receives Leadership Award at Fancy Food Show

HFAD 2023 Alderland Farm Tour

Iowa Pasture Pig Farmer Honored for Sustainability and Animal Welfare

Paul Willis, the founding hog farmer of Niman Ranch, has been awarded the prestigious Specialty Food Association Leadership Award for Sustainability at this year’s Fancy Food Show in New York. Willis, who began with a single pasture-based pork farm, has expanded Niman Ranch into a network of over 600 Certified Humane® independent family farmers and ranchers. These farmers raise pork, beef, and lamb sustainably, without the use of antibiotics, hormones, or crates.

Phil Robinson, Senior Vice President of Member Development at the Specialty Food Association, remarked, “Paul Willis shows how the specialty food industry can drive change and build a better, more sustainable food system. Thanks to Paul’s vision and tenacity—and the support of Niman Ranch customers seeking the best-tasting pork—hundreds of family farmers can make a living raising pigs humanely and sustainably. These qualities are what earned Paul SFA’s 2024 Leadership Award for Sustainability.”

Willis’s journey in sustainable agriculture began after graduating from the University of Iowa and serving in the Peace Corps in Nigeria, where he worked with the Young Farmers Club. Returning to the U.S. in 1975, he started his own farm in Thornton, Iowa, continuing his family’s legacy as a fifth-generation farmer. As demand for his pork grew, starting with the renowned Chez Panisse restaurant in California, Willis brought like-minded farmers into the Niman Ranch network to meet the increasing demand.

Over the past three decades, Willis has been deeply involved in numerous organizations supporting animal welfare and small farmers. He co-founded Food Democracy Now and co-authored the country’s first pork animal welfare certification standards. His efforts have extended to collaborations with the United Nations and Drake University in Des Moines to enhance the welfare of animals and the sustainability of independent family farms both domestically and internationally.

Willis’s impact on the farming community is profound, with many farmers crediting Niman Ranch for saving their family farms. He is particularly proud of the second and third-generation Niman Ranch family farms that continue the tradition of sustainable farming.

Today, Willis remains a pivotal figure at Niman Ranch, advocating for sustainable farming practices and animal welfare. In his spare time, he enjoys bird watching on his 160-acre prairie, gardening, and nurturing his heirloom tomatoes. As Niman Ranch’s Farmer #1, Willis remains committed to his advocacy for humane and sustainable farming. “I want to continue to be a spokesperson and an advocate for this type of production, for the farmers and the animals,” he shared.